Where Do We Start?

If we want to embark on the journey of finding our own faith, the things we believe in rather than what we have been taught, where do we begin? Ironically, the best answer is probably with what we have been taught. None of us is a blank sheet. We don’t start from scratch. We must start where we are. We do not choose our parents, our place of birth, our nationality, or the religious tradition we inherit. These things shape who we are, and no matter how far life moves us on from them, they are inevitably our starting point.

I was born into the Christian tradition. Both my parents were active members of a Baptist chapel in Wales. I was baptised by total immersion at the age of twelve. With all my experience of working in cooperation with other churches and other faiths, I am still a Baptist minister. But my life experience and thinking have made me a very questioning and unconventional Christian. If I had been born into a different culture, I might well have been a Jew or a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist, but I like to think that, whatever faith I was born into, I would still have become an open-minded, questioning and unconventional member of that faith community.

I have great respect for other faiths and have been inspired by some of their insights. When I attend a synagogue, I have a warm feeling of being in my own faith’s ancestral home. When I talk with humanists, I feel there is very little difference between us. Nevertheless, I am still happy to call myself a Christian and have never considered converting to another faith or belief. This is not because I am certain that the traditional version of Christianity is true, but because it corresponds to the way I see the world, or – to be bluntly honest – the way I want to see the world.

Christianity is often described as an ‘historical’ faith. That is, it is essentially a story. It is the story of a God who created the world and created human beings in God’s own image. It goes on to tell how this God worked in a special way through the long history of the Jewish people, and how their understanding of God’s ways developed through their experience. It tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher who declared and demonstrated a radically new way of life, who died and rose again, and in whom sin and death will be defeated and the image of God will be restored in a new heaven and a new earth. It claims that God has been supremely revealed not in spoken or written words but in this man, the Word made flesh.

Is this story true? Some parts of it of course are history that few if any would dispute. Other parts are legendary or mythological. Some of its central parts are an expression of faith that can never be proved or disproved. But whether strictly ‘true’ or not, I think it is the best story in the world, the story that is most true to the depths of human experience. I find that the more I try to live as if it is true the better it works.

In a sense, faith means believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change. In the story of Moses at the burning bush, Moses asks God to tell him his name. God’s answer is ‘I am who I am’. Even that simple statement can have more than one meaning. It could be a simple refusal to answer the question. It could suggest that God is the mystery that can never be defined or even named. In the Hebrew language there is no clear distinction between the present and future tenses, and so the statement can just as well mean ‘I will be who I will be’. This too can have more than one meaning. It could mean ‘I am free to be who I want to be’, or ‘you will keep discovering who I am’.

This is an invitation to the journey of faith. It also suggests that new thinking is not an aberration from Christianity, a sign of heresy or disloyalty. It is deeply embedded in the nature of the Judaeo-Christian faith itself. We are not chained by history but invited to keep on discovering God in new ways. We start where we are, but the destination is yet to be known.

The Dangers of Certainty

I have been reading Unfollow (riverrun 2019), the book in which Megan Phelps-Roper tells the story of her childhood and youth in the Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious ‘God Hates Fags’ church.  She paints a vivid picture of the ugliness of that church’s activities and the way it has torn itself apart by its own totalitarian attitudes. At the same time she talks of the comfort and security of belonging to that close knit family, the sense of complete certainty and rightness, then goes on to describe her own growing doubts, her eventual decision to break away from it, the pain of complete estrangement from her family, and the hard struggle to find a new way of living and of working out her own beliefs when all her experience had been of unquestioning obedience.

While acknowledging that her experience was extreme, she sees a disturbing reflection of it in many aspects of society today: ‘the division of the world into Us and Them; the vilification of compromise; the knee-jerk expulsion of insiders who violate group orthodoxy; and the demonization of outsiders … a growing insistence that opposing views must be silenced … At the heart of this insistence lie several false assumptions, including a sentiment that Westboro members would readily recognise: We have nothing to learn from these people.

The writer sees that ‘no-platforming’ is counter-productive: ‘While the desire to shield people from these ideas is well-intentioned and completely understandable, I can’t help but see it as a fundamentally flawed strategy, one that ignores the practicalities of human nature.’ More than ever in the age of the Internet, we cannot reasonably expect to halt the spread of a bad idea. What we can do is to foster a culture in which we can articulate sound arguments against it. None of us (even the most liberal of us) is infallible: we grow as people and as a society by honestly grappling with challenges to our world-view, no matter how certain we may feel about it.

I’m sure there are many issues on which we need to take note of these thoughts. The greater the certainty that we are right, and the stronger the passion we feel, the more important it is to listen and to think.

Finding Your Own Faith

I remember once in my student days meeting a fellow-student who was wearing a turban and said he was a Sikh. I had never met a Sikh before, but when I started asking questions, his response was, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know much about my religion’. I was too polite to say it, but I thought, ‘What an odd thing to say! How can you have a religion you don’t know much about?’

Of course, we were coming from different definitions of religion. To him, religion was a cultural identity, a heritage he had only partially taken possession of. To me, in my modern Western, individualistic culture, religion meant one’s own personal belief. If I don’t know what I believe, who does? I could say I am the world’s leading expert on my religion! Today, I would define religion in a different way. I see it as a tradition or an institution, very much in the sense in which that Sikh saw it. When talking personally I would be more inclined to use the word ‘faith’.

More and more people today are turning away from organised dogmatic religion and embracing a faith or a worldview which is truly their own. We are seeing the end of the age of dogma and hierarchy. Traditionally, people have believed what their preachers and church leaders have taught them – or, more often than is admitted, pretended to believe it. In past centuries this was backed up by legislation. If you were born in Catholic Europe, you had to be a Catholic. If you were born in a Protestant country, you had to be a Protestant. If you denied the religion of the country you lived in, you were in danger of being burned at the stake. This was just as true of other religions, with varying forms of punishment. In fact, there are still countries where people can be imprisoned or even executed for turning away from the prescribed religion.

In countries like Britain and the United States today faith is seen as an individual free choice, but even so it is only very recently that blasphemy laws and censorship have ceased to be enforced. And, whether backed up legally or not, there is still pressure to conform to the religion in which we were brought up, or the predominant religion of the community we belong to.

This is changing. More and more people today identify themselves as being of ‘no religion’, or ‘spiritual but not religious’. They are working out their own beliefs about the meaning of life and the universe. Theology may sound a grand word, something religious scholars do in their studies, but in a sense any of us who are trying to break free from what we think we ought to believe and set out on a journey to discover what we really believe are doing theology.

Not everyone takes this journey. Many people let the platitudes of their religion flow over their heads without taking them seriously.  Most at some time or other question the faith they have been taught. They are often too polite to express their doubts openly in case the religious authorities label them as heretics. But all religion is based on human experience, and if your experience makes you feel that something is true, meaningful, and important, your feeling is valid.

As a Christian minister, I have often said that I don’t have the answers to questions about God, life or the universe. The only difference between me and the people in the pews is that I have read more books about the answers other people have suggested, but nobody can guarantee that they have the ‘correct’ answer. We are all just human beings trying to understand our human experience. To do this, we need to practise honesty. Sometimes, too, we need the courage to break away both from what is traditional and from what is fashionable, and dare to say what is really on our hearts.

A Gospel to Proclaim?

Probably the main cause of the decline in organised religion in Western culture today is the lack of passionate conviction. Christian believers live good lives in accordance with their principles. Many of them are active in their concern about the problems of the world. Most charities, and many campaigns for peace and justice locally and globally, would be much weaker if it were not for the participation of Christian church members. But Christians share these concerns with many other people of goodwill who do not necessarily profess a religious faith. Christians with a social conscience are part of the wider community of liberal humanitarian people doing what they can to build a better world. What they are lacking is a passionate belief in the Christian gospel and an enthusiasm to propagate it.

In the past, faith was literally a matter of life and death. The bitter arguments between Catholics and Protestants, Anglicans and Nonconformists, Baptists and those who baptised infants, happened because people believed there was a heaven and a hell after death, and having the right beliefs was the condition of going to one and avoiding the other. Many of our Nonconformist chapels were built by poor people at their own expense as places for preaching what they were convinced was the one true gospel, studying the Bible, and praying earnestly for the salvation of others.

Later generations were brought up in the beliefs of their denomination and carried on the tradition out of a sense of duty to their parents, but with rather less passion. Going to church or chapel became something you did because it was part of the culture – it was the thing to do on Sundays.

In the twentieth century the struggle of the working classes against exploitation – often resisted by church leaders – and the traumatic experience of the First World War created a new generation with a different outlook on the world and often a cynical attitude towards the churches and the Christian faith. At the same time, new developments like train and motor travel, the cinema, television and so on meant that there were many things more attractive than going to church on Sunday.

And so those who still go to church regularly often see themselves as struggling to hold onto a dying tradition. They are reluctant to talk too much about their faith with people outside the churches because they are all too aware of the bad image of Christianity generated by the faults and mistakes of the past. Also, in the more multi-cultural society of today they want to show respect for other people’s faith rather than push Christianity as the only truth.

There are minority churches that flourish and grow, both here and even more in other parts of the world. They are mostly charismatic, passionate, unashamedly evangelistic, and certain of their faith. However, their biblical fundamentalism is a problem for most people in today’s educated society, and their strictly conservative moral attitudes, especially on sexuality, are exclusive, judgmental, and often downright cruel.

There are of course many churches that do not preach fundamentalism, that are at ease with science and rational thinking, that allow questions to be asked; churches that welcome all kinds of people without expecting them to give up their culture or their sexuality; churches that see very clearly the social and political implications of the teaching of Jesus. Some of these churches openly declare themselves as ‘inclusive’ or ‘liberal’, but many do not. In many if not most of the mainline traditional churches, people have liberal attitudes in practice but avoid being too outspoken for fear of causing offence to ‘simple’ believers. Often there has been a conspiracy of silence between the clergy and the laity. Ministers hold back from saying things they think might upset their congregation, and meanwhile members of the congregation are afraid to question things in case they upset the minister! In many churches the only interaction between clergy and laity is that the minister stands in the pulpit and preaches while the congregation sits quietly and listens. Often the sort of forum in which questions can be asked does not exist, and people keep their doubts to themselves. In this kind of situation is it any wonder that churches are ineffective and unattractive?

Even when liberals come out into the open and express themselves, the things they say tend mostly to be negative and apologetic. People say (or imply) things like:

‘I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian.’

‘I’m afraid I don’t believe everything in the Bible the way you do, but I still think it’s the word of God.’

‘I’m not sure I share your faith, but I hope you can recognise me as a fellow-Christian.’

Many ‘progressive’ theological writers seem to be constantly engaged in a battle with fundamentalism. Many of them in fact grew up in a conservative environment, both theologically and politically, and have turned away from it. This tends to make the whole discourse an argument within the Christian community rather than a declaration to the world. Their books are read mostly by Christians who are looking for a fresh expression of the faith they already have. It is sometimes tempting to think that liberal or progressive Christianity is parasitic on traditional Christianity: if it wasn’t for the conservative churches, what would liberals or progressives have to say, and who would listen to them?

There are of course Christians who make a big impression on the world through their actions – people like Dr Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and the many Christian churches that have a ministry that makes a real difference to their communities. In these, the heart of the Christian message is being proclaimed in action. But should it not be possible to spell it out in words as well?

I want to explore the question of how we can declare a relevant, positive, exciting faith that just forgets the things we don’t believe and declares the good news we do believe. Watch this space! And in the meantime, suggestions are welcome.

A Funny Thing, Faith

There is a story of a man who came in from town and said to his wife, ‘That vicar of yours is a right hypocrite’. His wife said, ‘What makes you say that? He’s a very nice man.’ ‘Well,’ said the husband, ‘he’s always on about heaven and how we should all look forward to going there. I saw him in town today, and as he was crossing the street a car suddenly came round the corner at top speed. Judging by the way that vicar moved, I don’t think he’s in any hurry to get to heaven!’

Life after death is not the only aspect of faith that we have mixed feelings about. When someone is ill, we pray for them. Some people believe in miracles of healing. But we still go to the doctor. Christians believe Jesus is their authority. Jesus told us to lay up our treasures in heaven, not on earth, but most of us like to have enough money in the bank for a comfortable life and some security.

It’s a common fallacy that everybody either believes in God or they don’t. Some of the most prominent believers have their times of doubt, and atheists sometimes doubt their atheism! A vicar was once asked whether he really believed in God. His reply was: ‘I believe in God on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I don’t believe on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and on Sundays  I’m too busy to think about it.’ Real faith never comes easily. It is always a reaching out for something we can never fully grasp or prove. It battles constantly with doubts and questions.

Believe it or not, this is just the kind of faith we find in the Bible. We tend to assume that the Bible lays down the law about God,  but in fact those who wrote it were themselves seekers, struggling towards faith just like many of us. In the Psalms they often ask God why he isn’t listening to their prayers. The Book of Job is one long argument about whether God’s ways are fair. The Book of Ecclesiastes questions whether life has any meaning at all, or at least any meaning that we can understand.

And perhaps the ultimate paradox is that according to two of the four Gospels the only words Jesus said on the cross were, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Christians believe Jesus was God. How do we get our heads around that one?

And yet, some of the people who suffer most say ‘God is good’. Faith is challenged everywhere, but somehow it won’t go away. During the Nazi holocaust a group of Jews in Auschwitz decided to put God on trial because of what he had allowed to happen to them. They concluded that he certainly had a case to answer, but then the ‘court’ was adjourned because it was time for prayers!

The Power to Forgive

I have always had difficulty with the words attributed to Jesus in the resurrection story in John 20:22-23:

‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

The traditional Catholic understanding of this is quite straightforward. Jesus said these words to the Apostles. Ordained priests are the authorised successors of the Apostles. People come to the priest to confess their sins, and the priest has the power to grant them absolution, or to withhold it by giving them a penance to perform as a condition. Presumably also the priest can refuse absolution altogether – for instance, if the person is blatantly unrepentant, or is not a baptised member of the Church.

My Protestant faith rebels against that idea. But what do I make of these words? I have always avoided commenting on them, because quite frankly I didn’t know what to make of them. Perhaps the Apostles made them up, but if Jesus actually said them, what did he mean?

However, hearing them read today, I suddenly felt I was understanding them for the first time – not bad for someone who has been preaching for over 60 years!

Jesus had just said ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. In other words. he was sending his disciples into the world to be what he himself was in the world – to carry on his mission. His mission was to bring God’s forgiveness to the world, and he brought it to all kinds of people – outcasts of society, people burdened by guilt, ‘unclean’ foreigners, the Roman oppressors, crooked tax-collectors, the hated Samaritans – there were no limits.

He didn’t demand penitence from them, and he certainly didn’t dole out penances. He preached the unconditional forgiving love of God. But people who are living with a burden of guilt, or whose whole life has been an experience of being despised and condemned, or struggling to be accepted, can only know that love if they are shown it in practical ways. Jesus brought God’s forgiving love to people by being their friend – touching the leper, eating and drinking with notorious ‘sinners’, praising the faith of a Roman soldier, choosing to stay in the home of the hated Zacchaeus instead of with one of the pious people. And he sent his disciples out into the world to do the same.

The presence of Jesus in the world today is us – that is, not just a chosen elite of apostles, or even the wider circle of Christians, but everybody who is willing to live in the world as he did, accepting and loving people without condition. If we forgive those who wrong us, that is the way God’s forgiveness gets to them. And if we withhold that forgiveness, how are they going to know it?

The Physical is Spiritual

‘Love God’ … ‘love your neighbour’ … ‘We’re in love’ … ‘let’s make love’ … ‘I love my children …’ ‘I Iove my job …’ ‘I love being out in the fresh air…’ ‘I love chocolate’ …

There seem to be so many meanings to the word ‘love’. Sometimes it is even used in a negative sense. To say someone has a ‘love child’ tends to imply a dark history of adultery or illicit sex. In some parts of the world there are establishments called ‘love hotels’ where you can book a room by the hour for a ‘quickie’. It has even been known for posts containing the word ‘love’ to be removed from social media because some censoring algorithm has assumed they are indecent.

Clever theologians claim that there are different kinds of love. The love of God, or the kind of love Christians should have (agapē in Greek), is quite different, they say, from ordinary human friendship (philia), and even more different from romantic or sexual love (eros). This distinction owes a lot to the Greek philosophical idea that the more ordinary or physical a thing is the less ‘worthy’ it is, the further it is from the spiritual, or from God. The Hebrew way of thinking we find in the Bible doesn’t bear this out. To that way of thinking, a human being is not a pure soul trapped in an earthly body, but a thinking, feeling, breathing body with passions that can be good or bad.

When the prophet Jeremiah says (in the words of the King James Bible, Jer 4:19) ‘My bowels! my bowels!’, he is not complaining of the result of a rather too spicy meal. He is expressing his ‘anguish’ (as modern versions more politely put it) as he foresees terrible times coming for the nation. He goes on to say ‘my heart maketh a noise in me’. Strong emotions, whether of fear, love or human sympathy, are felt in the body. Rational biologists can say what they like about emotions being a function of the brain and the heart being just a muscle to pump the blood around, but we know from experience that fear sets the heart racing, that a shock can bring on a heart attack, and that the unexpected sight of a loved one can make your heart miss a beat. Further on in the same book (31:20) Jeremiah talks even of God’s bowels. He hears God expressing his deep love for the wayward Ephraim (another name for the nation of Israel): ‘my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the LORD’.

The apostle Paul expresses his love for his friends at Philippi by saying, ‘I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ’, and goes on to appeal to them to be of one mind ‘if there be … any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies’ (Phil 1:8; 2:1). In his mind there is clearly no separation between spiritual life and the feelings of the body.

We find the expression ‘heart and reins’ in a number of places in the Bible, as in the saying in the Psalms (Ps 7:9 etc.) ‘the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins’. We usually miss the significance of this by not realising that ‘reins’ is an old English word for ‘kidneys’. People in biblical times thought of the heart as the seat of the intellect and the kidneys as the seat of the emotions. We often feel an emotion ‘in the pit of the stomach’, and sometimes nervousness or strong emotion can give us a need to pass water.

So love, whether we think of the love of God or of human love, is bodily. Sex is spiritual. Being attracted to another person in a way that makes us want to get close, to be united with them, is as spiritual as prayer. Like prayer, it can be superficial or short-lived, and it can be hypocritical and mixed up with all sorts of selfish motives. Loving sex that honours the partner and their needs as much as one’s own is part of the love of God, but even the most superficial sexual attraction that lasts only a moment is a brief taste of that love.

Spirituality Begins With Love

‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) – the simplest and most profound statement in the Bible.

It is often pointed out that everything we say about God is a metaphor. A metaphor says that one thing is like another, but not exactly the same. It is like it in some ways but not in others. When the Psalm says ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ it means that the Lord cares for me, guides me and feeds me like a shepherd, but it doesn’t mean he is fattening me up to sell me for slaughter. When we call God a Rock, we mean he is strong and reliable, but we don’t mean he is hard, cold and dead. Calling God ‘Father’ is a great statement of trust, but it doesn’t mean he fathered us in the usual human way.

But what about ‘God is love’? Is God like love in some ways but not in others? And how can God be ‘like’ love anyway? The biblical writer could have said ‘God is a loving person’, but I suspect that in saying ‘God is love’ he was trying to express something more than that. Even ‘person’ is a kind of metaphor when we are talking about God. A person is an individual, distinct from others, who can only be in one place at a time. So how can the God who pervades the universe, ‘walks’ alongside us and lives within us be simply a person? Perhaps ‘God is love’ means just what it says. Where we find love, God is there.

This is good news for everybody – not just for religious people, mystics or a spiritual elite. Every one of us knows what love is. Some experience more of it than others, some give more of it than others, but even the most deprived (or depraved) have some perception of what it is. There is something in every one of us, even if we deny it, that longs to love and be loved. If a relationship with God has to start with love, we are all ready to start.

At the same time, to believe that God is love is the most audacious act of faith. Where is the evidence? The universe doesn’t seem to care about our safety or happiness. Living things live by destroying and feeding on other living things. We share the planet with viruses and parasites that can cause us terrible pain and sickness, and animals that can kill us if they get the slightest chance. Human beings can do atrocious things to one another. Most of the universe is space in which nothing can live, and even this planet – which, as far as we know so far, is the only place where intelligent life exists – is subject to earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and collision with comets and meteors. In this universe, where is the evidence of a God who is love?

And yet love exists. We are loved and we love, and somehow we know this is the greatest thing there is. Something tells us to believe in spite of the evidence, and somehow by believing we make the evidence. In a world where absolute certainty does not exist, this is the best we have.

Do We Dream God, or Does God Dream Us?

The Prologue to my book Chasing an Elusive God:

AT THE beginning of history, human beings began to dream… Their dreams were their fears and their hopes. They dreamed up demons and spirits and hostile gods who caused disease, destruction and death. They dreamed up benevolent spirits who protected them, creative spirits who made the crops grow, happy spirits who made the flowers blossom and inspired people to dance and sing, mysterious spirits who gave them feelings they could not explain.
Then some people became richer and more powerful than others, and they dreamed up gods who protected their wealth and power and kept the poor in their place. They dreamed up national gods who helped them in their battles and defeated other nations. They dreamed up rebel gods who helped them overthrow those more powerful than themselves. They dreamed up power struggles in Heaven reflecting the power struggles on earth, myths to explain why the world is as it is.

Then someone said: ‘This can’t be right! Let’s be logical about it – someone has to be in charge of the whole lot. If there is ‘god’, there can only be one God’. And people agreed there could only be one God. But what kind of God?

So people dreamed up a God who controls everything, creating good and evil, light and darkness, life and death, a God against whom we are all helpless.

But those who were oppressed and abused said: ‘This can’t go on for ever!’ And they dreamed up a God of justice who favours the good and doesn’t allow the wicked to get away with it. And in the name of this God of justice the poor and the weak felt free, and sang songs of hope.

But then the powerful took this God over, and changed the dream to a God of laws and rules, who punishes the little weaknesses of the poor and threatens them with Hell, but overlooks the violence of the powerful because it is ‘necessary’ to keep society in order.

And then someone who was in love said: ‘Love is the greatest thing in the world. If God is the greatest, God must be loving’. So people dreamed up a God who loves and cares and wants to be our friend. A God like that would not want war and violence, nor punishment, nor barriers of race and class. Such a God would want us all to love one another.

This was not a very popular idea. People who preached about such a God were sometimes scorned as impractical dreamers. Even worse, they were set up on a pedestal and worshipped, and their teaching was twisted so that once again it served the purposes of the powerful.

Time passed, and circumstances changed. Hindus dreamed of one God in many manifestations. Buddhists dreamed of an eternal Spirit, forming and re-forming itself in every living creature. Jews in all their suffering dreamed of a God whose justice is slow and hard to see, yet perfect. Christians dreamed of a God who came down to earth and became one with suffering humanity. Muslims dreamed of a God who is merciful and compassionate, whom to obey is peace. Sikhs dreamed of a God in whose eyes all faiths are equal.

And then women began to say: ‘Why do the men assume God is male?’ And they dreamed up a God who is our Mother, warm and loving, but strong and fierce to protect us.

And black people, setting themselves free from centuries of oppression, said: ‘Black is beautiful. God is beautiful. God is black’.

And then gay people said: ‘Why do all the God-dreamers condemn us? God made us too. He made us different, because he loves variety’.

And so we go on, generation after generation, whoever we are, arguing and praying, in our hopes and in our fears dreaming up the God we need.

And that is how men and women said: ‘Let us create God in our image’.

BUT perhaps there is another story…

From eternity God has had dreams. God’s dreams are energy, forming matter. God dreamed up a universe, with billions of galaxies full of stars. And because God dreamed it, it was real. And God’s dreaming made planets, and life, evolving in thousands of shapes and colours, and intelligence, and human beings.

And God, surprised and delighted at God’s own creativity, said: ‘They are so beautiful! I can see myself in them!’

And then God said: ‘I won’t tell them I made them. I’ll let them dream me up. I’ll let them argue about me. They may learn more about me that way. And who knows? I may even learn something more about myself.’

Faith as Poetry

In my book ‘Sing Out For Justice’ I say: ‘The prophets were poets. It is not enough to say that they teach us to practise justice. They do not “teach” in that kind of way. They long for justice, they lament the lack of justice, they keep alive the hope for justice, and they celebrate justice.’

So much religion is bound up in people’s minds with the idea of ‘teaching’, which leads into ‘doctrine’ – the idea that religion is a matter of ‘believing that’ rather than ‘believing in’. I have come to believe that faith in its best sense is not assent to a set of doctrines presented as ‘facts’ about God. It is an experience, a passion, a dream. Its best expression is not in logical proposition but in poetry, music and art.

Theologians discuss theories and beliefs: they try to understand things. Poets and artists just feel things. Religion can be a way of avoiding feelings. Beliefs about the afterlife are more comfortable than really experiencing the unbearable reality of death. Systems of morality are so much simpler than the painful uncertainty of relationships and the dilemmas life throws up for us every day. Doctrines and systems give us a feeling of understanding the world, of being in control. But if God is really God, we are not in control and never can be.

That is why the appropriate response to the sense of God in our lives is not seeking certainty but expressing our dreams and our passions. It is passionately seeking our highest desires and believing in them. Whether people call this believing in God or call it by some other name is not of ultimate importance. To me, God is the reality in which ‘we live and move and have our being’. Perhaps the best answer to the question ‘do you believe in God?’ is ‘does a raindrop believe in water?’